The Jazz Singer at 90, Part II (What inspired the story)

Samson Raphaelson (30 March 1894–16 July 1983) was the writer to whom we owe The Jazz Singer. A native New Yorker, he attended the University of Illinois and worked as a journalist and ad writer after graduation. His dream was to become a published short story writer.

When he was a successful ad executive in NYC, he wrote a short story based on Al Jolson’s early life, “The Day of Atonement.” It was published in Everybody’s Magazine in January 1922.

His secretary encouraged him to rework it as a play, and showed him a play manuscript so he could see the style needed. She said he’d dictated more than that in two hours yesterday, and volunteered to dictate over the weekend.

By Sunday evening, they’d produced a complete draft of a play, The Jazz Singer. The play débuted by Broadway’s Fulton Theatre (razed in 1982) on 14 September 1925. Between the Fulton and Cort Theatres, it gave 303 performances, till 5 June 1926.

A 1927 revival by the Century Theatre ran for 16 performances.

Raphaelson got the idea on 25 April 1917, when he saw 30-year-old Al Jolson in the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr., in Champaign, IL. He was struck by how Jolson sounded not like a jazz singer, but a cantor. Raphaelson also knew Jolson’s dad was a Lower East Side cantor.

Raphaelson’s story is about a young man who breaks from his religious roots to become a jazz singer, with a conflict between father and son about the proper usage of God-given talents.

Nine-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz breaks his gang’s code by not responding to the taunts of an Irish boy from a rival gang. Because he didn’t answer to the anti-Semitic insults, another member of his gang, Joe, beats him to a pulp. Jakie is so angry, he spews the same anti-Semitic insults at Joe.

At home, Cantor Rabinowitz (of Hester Street Synagogue) beats him too, after he says he doesn’t want to become a cantor. His Hebrew school teacher also beats him.

Cantor Rabinowitz agrees to a compromise, in which Jakie will sing in shul on Shabbos and the High Holy Days, while working as a ragtime singer the rest of the time. But when Jakie neglects his religious duties, his dad kicks him out.

Jakie reinvents himself as Jack Robin and begins building a successful musical career. He falls in love with a Gentile dancer, Amy Prentiss, the daughter of a Boston lawyer. Jack hides his Jewish origins out of fear of rejection, and this inner turmoil affects his singing, as does the alcohol he’s begun imbibing.

When Jack finally tells the truth, they get engaged. His parents are horrified he’s intermarrying.

As Yom Kippur approaches, Mrs. Rabinowitz asks him to attend services, the same night Jack’s Broadway show opens. Before he dies, Cantor Rabinowitz begs his wife to get Jack to chant Kol Nidre.

In Act I of the play, Jack Robin visits his parents on his dad’s 60th birthday. His dad is an Orthodox cantor on the Lower East Side, from a long line of cantors. Needless to say, Cantor Rabinowitz highly disapproves of his son’s career as a blackface jazz singer.

After a fight, Jack is kicked out.

In Act II, Jack gets ready for his Broadway début, which he hopes will majorly launch his career. Word is relayed to Jack that his dad has fallen very ill, but he refuses to leave rehearsals.

In Act III, Jack visits his parents’ home before the show, only to find his dad has been taken to hospital. This differs from the film, where Cantor Rabinowitz remains at home the entire time.

Now it’s up to Jack to decide if the show must go on above all else, or if he’ll go back to shul to chant Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.

The star of the show was renowned entertainer George Jessel (3 April 1898–23 May 1981). Among his many claims to fame was being one of Broadway’s most popular leading men. He, not Al Jolson, was originally slated to star in the film adaptation. More on that in future posts.

The cast list for the play is much larger than that of the film, though it’s possible all these characters are also in the film but are just unnamed. There are a number of background characters and extras amid the main players.

George Albert Jessel

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The Jazz Singer at 90, Part I (Plot summary)

Welcome to my long-awaited series on The Jazz Singer on its 90th anniversary! I’m going to be covering topics including the source play, Al Jolson, the history of blackface, the history of Jewish-themed films, the transition from silent to sound film, debunking myths about this era (e.g., the claim that most silent stars had horrible voices), the history of sound-on-film technology, the making of the film, and so much more.

Let’s get started with a general plot summary and review of the film itself!

The story opens in the Lower East Side (described as “the ghetto”), where 13-year-old Jakie Rabinowitz longs to become a jazz singer instead of following in his cantor dad’s footsteps. It’s Erev (the eve of) Yom Kippur, and Jakie still isn’t home to sing with his dad in shul.

Busybody Moisha Yudelson reports he saw Jakie “singing raggy time songs” by a beer garden. Ignoring the fact that Yudelson was in such a supposedly sinful place himself, Cantor Rabinowitz storms over and drags Jakie home.

Jakie’s mother Sara begs her husband to be easy on the boy, but Cantor Rabinowitz declares, “I’ll teach him better than to debase the voice God gave him!” Jakie says he’ll run away and never come back if he’s whipped again, and he indeed does just that.

By the Kol Nidre evening service, Cantor Rabinowitz says he no longer has a son. During the chanting of Kol Nidre, Jakie (who’s quite a mama’s-boy) sneaks back home to pick up a picture of his mother.

Ten years later, Jakie has reinvented himself as Jack Robin. After he wows the crowd at a cabaret with a few songs, he’s introduced to dancer Mary Dale. She offers to help him with his career, and says he’s got a tear in his voice, unlike many other jazz singers.

Jack’s big break comes when Mary helps him to get a leading role in the musical April Follies. He’s very excited to be going back to New York, his home. Best of all, he’ll get to see his mother again.

Mrs. Rabinowitz is ecstatic to see her boy again, and Jack promises all sorts of wonderful things, like moving her to the Bronx and buying her a big house. Jack has also brought a birthday present for his dad. But when Cantor Rabinowitz comes home, the happy mood is crushed (and the dialogue reverts from sound to title cards).

Once again, Jack tries to explain his love of modern music and why he feels it’s more important to him than old traditions, but his father will have none of it. Cantor Rabinowitz banishes him again, and on his way out, Jack says he came home with a heart full of love.

Two weeks later, and twenty-four hours before the opening of April Follies, Cantor Rabinowitz falls very sick. This is also Erev Yom Kippur, which means he won’t be able to chant Kol Nidre. Now, in a decision reminiscent of Sandy Koufax and the 1965 World Series, Jack has to make the difficult choice between his faith and his career. Will he sing in the show or take his father’s place in shul?

This isn’t one of the all-time classic greats of film history, but I’d give it a solid 4 stars. The blackface might make some modern people uncomfortable, but it’s only in two scenes, one towards the end and the other at the end. I was really nervous about that the first time I saw it, but I ended up not taking any offense.

As I’ll discuss in future posts, the use of blackface is actually integral to both this specific story and Al Jolson’s life and career. It wouldn’t be the same story, with the same impact, if it were taken out.

Everyone should see this important piece of film history at least once.

WeWriWa—A new kind of atonement

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes from my WIP, The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, and is the conclusion of the first section of Chapter 29, “A New Kind of Atonement.”

It’s September 1945, and my characters have recently moved to Budapest from Abony so they can be in a much larger Jewish community. They’re attending services at the Great Synagogue of Budapest on Dohány Utca (Street), in the uniquely Hungarian Neolog denomination. It’s sort of like liberal Modern Orthodoxy or very, very old-school Conservative Judaism.

Parts of the synagogue are in ruins (along with 80% of the entire city), and about 2,000 people who died in the Budapest Ghetto are buried in the courtyard. There’s also the chilling knowledge that during the occupation, Eichmann had his office in the women’s gallery. Needless to say, the autumn holidays haven’t been very happy so far.

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Dohány Utca Synagogue, Copyright Gabor Dvornik

The sounds of Kol Nidre commingled and competed with the sobs and shrieks they’d come to expect here.  Beyond remembering all the people who’d been with them last year at this time, surely many people were thinking of the promises, vows, and oaths they’d made in the best of faith but been unable to keep because of the forces of evil.

Eszter thought back to one of the film festivals she’d gone to with Mirjam, before the war, when foreign films were still allowed.  The climactic Yom Kippur scene from The Jazz Singer came into her head, as Al Jolson’s character chose his faith over his career, at least for that one night.  He sang with a tear in his voice, his soul and identity laid bare, in spite of his attempts to hide behind blackface and a de-Judaized name.

Perhaps Kálmán was right, and they’d be better-off in their own homeland, without having to resort to similar hiding measures and make the Gentiles think they were better, different, more modern than those people who lived in self-imposed ghettos.  The cataclysm they’d just lived through had struck everyone, the insular as well as assimilated.  Now it was up to them to rebuild the remnants and replant the uprooted trees.

Next autumn, I’ll be doing a series on The Jazz Singer at 90, exploring a lot of different topics related to the film, the transition from silent to sound film, and so much more. I’m really looking forward to researching and writing this series.

Halloween-themed posts begin next week!

A disappointing review of The Jazz Singer

(FYI: I’m planning a series on The Jazz Singer at 90, similar to my series on BOAN at 100, in 2017, and may repeat some of what’s in this post during that future series. Topics I have in mind include the history of blackface, the transition from silents to talkies, the unintended consequences of the end of the silent era, Al Jolson, the history of sound films before 1927, and the plot of the film. Feel free to give me suggestions for topics related to the film and its history!)

As I’ve mentioned in several prior posts, I’m a fan of the Rap Critic. I’m one of many non-rap fans who love his show, since he’s so intelligent and funny, demands more quality and intelligence in mainstream hip-hop, isn’t afraid to rip apart terrible songs (some of his best reviews are of songs he gives a 0 out of 5 to), and gives examples of good rap songs, both classics and current songs under the radar. I also love when he does a collaboration with someone else from Channel Awesome. However, I was really disappointed in this review, though they ultimately judged it fairly well.

Reasons for my disappointment:

How in blazes do you mispronounce Rabinowitz as Rah-BONN-o-witz? Seriously, that was so embarrassing! I know I have a lot more experience with Eastern European surnames than most folks, but that name seems fairly straightforward.

How can you not even figure out how to pronounce Nidre? The prayer is in the very film you’re reviewing, and it’s chanted thrice in a row. That shouldn’t be a difficult Hebrew word to figure out the pronunciation of, and I’d like to think many non-Jews are familiar with the Kol Nidre prayer because it’s so well-known. Even people who have zero to do with their Judaism the rest of the year suddenly care enough to go to shul for Kol Nidre.

Roscoe Arbuckle had a name. His friends never called him “Fatty.” I don’t mind so much calling him Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, but not with calling him only “Fatty.”

There was absolutely no need to get so political near the end of the review. This isn’t a political film in the least, nor is it racist. What in the world does the modern-day Black Lives Matter movement have anything to do with an Al Jolson film from 1927?!

You cannot take something out of its historical and cultural context and apply your modern sensibilities to it. I’ll admit I was really nervous when I saw the film for the first time, knowing there was going to be blackface, but when I actually saw it in its proper context, I relaxed. They really made way too much out of blackface when it’s only in two scenes in the entire film, near the end and at the end. A lot of the celebrities they “shamed” for having used blackface were from an era when that was an established part of the culture, with no offense intended.

This film isn’t about racial issues. It’s about a jazz-loving young man breaking away from his traditional Jewish family to follow his heart, trying to make peace with his pull towards both worlds, and faced with the difficult decision to sing in an important show or take his ailing father’s place to chant Kol Nidre.

I really feel like they disproportionately focused on blackface, without doing enough research into its historical place in entertainment, nor the reasons it appealed to Al Jolson in particular. Obviously, most modern folks will feel uncomfortable with it, but that doesn’t mean we should assign all these political, racist motivations to people who did it in the pre-Civil Rights era. As they themselves conceded, Al Jolson wasn’t a racist.

Knowing what I now know about the history of blackface entertainment and minstrel shows, I don’t see it as inherently racist, but something which should be judged from context and intent, on a case-by-case basis. Yes, it would never be allowed today, but this isn’t a modern film. Of course they’ll have different sensibilities. Getting so bent out of shape over two brief, respectful scenes in blackface near the end is like ranting against Chico Marx for his fake Italian accent.